Catechism IV: Lent Part I

Those righteous guardians of proper thought over at the Washington (“Democracy Dies in Darkness”) Post have gleefully offered up this gem regarding one of the many manifestations of Ireland’s frenetic explosion from the strangling tentacles of the Roman Catholic Church: funerals without God. The Humanist Association of Ireland is at the forefront of helping the poor Irish people blinking in the new sunlight free themselves from those surly ancient bonds, and it is heavily involved in this funeral effort (along with secular marriages, “naming ceremonies” and pretty much everything else, all without God). What, then, do the Humanists believe? They believe this:

“…Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world’s major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision…” 

(Amsterdam Declaration 2002)


That, in a nutshell, is at the heart of secular humanism’s beef with “organized religions”,  all (or most) of which teach that there are immutable truths of one form or another existing outside of ourselves. The various religions do not agree on what those truths are,  but they are at least in agreement that such truths exist. Now, the thing about religions teaching different “absolute truths” is this: they can’t all be right.** They could all be wrong – that is the Humanists’ position – but they can’t all be right. By virtue of adhering to a specific religion, you are by definition rejecting some, or most, or all of the tenets of some other religion.

In Washington, DC, the Humanists there used to buy anti-Christmas advertising on the side of the Metrobusses at Christmastime: “No need for Christianity,” the posters declared, “Just do good, for goodness sake”. I used to see them while standing and waiting for my transfer bus, and wonder: what is good? Who decides? Insofar as the Humanists base the ethics of their religion (and it is a religion, their protestations notwithstanding) on the shifting sands of “the continual process of observation, evaluation, and revision”, they are simply unable to answer this question: Was Hitler wrong? After all, Hitler, relative to his time and place, thought he was doing right. Had he won the war, perhaps the continual process of observation, evaluation, and revision might have come to different conclusions regarding his activities from those we now hold. I’m not going to go down this rabbit hole any further, suffice it to say that we - all of us, even the Humanists - need to address the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate’s fundamental question: Quid est veritas – what is truth?

We might decide the question is unanswerable and/or unimportant, and blow it off. Or, we might try to tackle it. In choosing the latter, we must begin somewhere. The Humanists’ continual process of observation, evaluation and reflection is a bit vague, so I’ll have something a bit more concrete. How convenient that the first reading for the Third Sunday in Lent in the Ordinary Form (year B), which happens to have been this Sunday just past, is taken from the Book of Exodus, Chapter 20. It goes like this: 

“And the Lord spoke all these words: I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of bondage. Thou shalt have no strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth, Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them. I am the Lord thy God, mighty and jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and shewing mercy unto thousands to them that love me, and keep my commandments…

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain … remember that thou keep holy the sabbath day … Honour thy father and thy mother, that thou mayest be long-lived upon the land which the Lord thy God will give thee. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. Thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s wife, nor his servant, nor his handmaid,  nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.”

                             Douay-Rheims version.

Well, that’s a start. What follow is a brief primer (or, if you prefer, a laundry list) of the way the Church fleshes out these Commandments to form a framework for how we discern, as we go through our complex and often confusing lives, what is good, and what is true. This week we’ll hit on some Church basics – the Church in a nutshell. Next week we’ll spend a few moments on sin and confession. The purpose is to get us thinking, not to present some sort of comprehensive treatise. So, let’s get on with it. 

First, the precepts (positive laws) of the Church:

  1. To hear Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.
  2. To confess sins at least once a year.
  3. To receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
  4. To observe the days of fasting and abstinence as established by the Church.
  5. To help provide for the material needs of the Church.

These five can be found in the CCC, 2041-2043. There is also a 6th precept listed in older catechisms (but not that old, it’s in the 1962 Missal) regarding prohibition of marriage at forbidden times or secretly or with forbidden degrees of kindred, or “otherwise prohibited by the Church. This precept does not appear in the current Catechism.

The virtues (CCC 1803-1832): “A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good… ‘The goal of the virtuous life is to become like God.’”

“Four virtues,” the Catechism continues, “play a pivotal role and accordingly are called ‘cardinal’ (cardo=hinge- TC); all the others are grouped around them,’ Paraphrasing the CCC, they are:

(1) Prudence, which disposes the practical reason to discern in every circumstance one’s true good and to choose the right means for achieving it… With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.

(2) Justice, which consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their due.

(3) Fortitude, which ensure firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.

(4) Temperence, which moderates the attraction of the pleasures of the senses and provides balance in the use of created goods.

The theological virtues relate directly to God. They dispose Christians to live in a close relationship with the Holy Trinity. They are three:

(1) Faith, by which we believe in God and believe all that He has said and revealed to us and tha Holy Church proposes for our belief…

(2) Hope, by which we desire the kingdom of heaven … placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the strength of the Holy Spirit … Hope is also a weapon that protects us in the struggle of salvation… and

(3) Charity, by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbors as ourselves for the love of God.

The Works of Mercy are actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor’s spiritual and bodily necessities. They are:

Corporal Works of Mercy: Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned burying the dead.

Spiritual Works of Mercy: Counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the afflicted, forgiving offenses, bearing wrongs patiently, praying for the living and the dead.



* NOS= “Not Otherwise Specified”

** This, by the way, includes Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity, although it is currently fashionable to try to paper over the deep and fundamental differences.